Category Archives: Peter May

I’m a Sergeant Out of Perrineville Barracks Number 8*

It’s interesting how people’s views of the police can vary. That’s true even if you consider just law-abiding people (after all, those who have a habit of breaking the law aren’t likely to welcome the police). People’s views of the police are affected by lots of factors (social class, culture, whether there are police officers in the family, and so on.

One attitude is expressed neatly in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. In that novel, Hercule Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who shot Dr. John Christow. The victim and his wife, Gerda, were weekend guests at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell when Christow was shot. So, naturally, Grange and his men want to talk to all of the members of the household. Here’s what the cook, Mrs. Medway, says when one of the kitchen maids tells the police something she saw:
 

‘‘It’s common to be mixed up with the police, and don’t you forget it.’’
 

The belief is that respectable people, regardless of their social class, do not get involved in crime. Many people still have a little of that assumption.

Also inherent in Mrs. Medway’s remark is the belief that the ‘better class’ of people wouldn’t have anything to do with crime. We see that also in Anne Perry’s Face of a Stranger, which takes place in Victorian London. In it, Inspector William Monk searches for the killer of a ‘blueblood’ named Joscelin Grey, who was found killed in his own home. As you might imagine, Monk wants to talk to the members of Grey’s family, to see if any of them might be able to shed light on the matter. Immediately, it’s made clear to him that no-one in a family like the Greys could possibly, in any way all, be mixed up with a sordid crime. He’s better off, he’s told, going after the ‘riffraff’ who committed the crime, then bothering a socially prominent family. Interestingly, in the novel, the police are treated as not very different from tradespeople – certainly not people to be obeyed automatically.

Many people, of course, respect the police, and see them as people to turn to in time of need. There are hundreds of crime novels in which people depend on the police to solve a family member’s murder, or to find a missing loved one. One example is Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine. In one plot line of the novel, Benny Frayle is devastated when her friend, financial advisor Dennis Brinkley, is killed. On the surface, he died in a tragic accident in the room where he kept his collection of ancient weapons. Benny doesn’t believe this death was an accident, though. So, she goes to the police to ask them to take another look at the case. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby hears her out, and duly looks over the reports from the initial investigation. He doesn’t see any cause for concern, though. The officers involved did their jobs efficiently and professionally, and they found no reason to call this death anything but an accident. But Benny insists otherwise. Then, there’s another death. A self-styled medium named Ava Garrett dies of what turns out to be poison. Her murder comes shortly after she holds a séance in which she mentions details of Brinkley’s death that she couldn’t have known. Now, Barnaby is convinced that the two deaths are murders, and are related. So, he and his team look into the cases carefully, and find the link between the cases.

There are also plenty of people who don’t want to be involved with the police more than absolutely necessary. Sometimes it’s because they’re afraid of the consequences if they do have anything to do with the police. Sometimes it’s because they distrust authority. Sometimes they see the police as interfering. We see this sort of attitude in Peter May’s The Blackhouse. In that novel, we meet Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod, an Edinburgh police detective who’s been seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help solve a murder that’s very similar to one he’s already investigating. It’s believed that, if the two murders were committed by the same person, then it makes sense to share information. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up on the Isle of Lewis. But he had his own reasons for leaving, and he isn’t especially thrilled to be back. Woven into the story is the local people’s natural distrust for ‘the polis.’ That’s also quite evident in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, which sees Glasgow Inspector Jack Laidlaw investigating the murder of a young woman who went missing after a night at a disco.

For some people, their view of the police is impacted by negative experiences they’ve had. In other words, the police themselves are the problem. We see that in Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, for example. In it, Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen has just been stationed in Tiverton, in rural South Australia. His new assignment is a punishment for ‘whistleblowing’ during an Internal Affairs investigation in Adelaide, so as it is, he’s not particularly popular with his new colleagues. Then, the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is found by the side of Bitter Wash Road. As Hirsch looks into the case, he learns that several of the local people don’t want to cooperate with him. They assume that he’s in league with the other local police, and they have very good reason not to trust those police. Little by little, though, Hirsch finds out the truth. There are plenty of other novels, too, where people don’t talk to the police, because they know that the police are not to be trusted.

It’s interesting to see how many different views there are of the police. They’re impacted by a lot of different factors, too. And that means that a crime writer has a lot of flexibility when it comes to how the police will be regarded in a novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Perry, Caroline Graham, Garry Disher, Peter May, William McIlvanney

Double Helix DNA*

As this is posted, it’s 65 years since James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule. In the intervening years, DNA and DNA testing have become important parts of criminal investigation. Of course, DNA analysis is more complicated and takes longer than what you might see on TV shows and film. It can take weeks or even months to get results, depending on the situation. And DNA analysis can be costly. So, many smaller police departments don’t have access to convenient laboratory testing.

All that said, though, DNA testing and analysis are woven into a lot of modern crime fiction. Sometimes it’s used to look into ‘cold cases.’ Other times, it’s used to exonerate or implicate someone. There are other uses, too. And it’s interesting to see how different authors integrate this technology.

In Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, we are introduced to Detective Sergeant (DS) Anna Travis, who’s just joined the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. As it happens, it’s a critical time for the team. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been discovered, and it looks on the surface as though this murder fits the profile of six other murders of women, all killed in exactly the same way. But there are differences. For example, the other victims were all older prostitutes. Melissa was young and not a prostitute. Still, the Murder Squad’s leader, Detective Chief Inspector James Langton, suspects that the same person killed all seven victims. This case isn’t going to be easy. The killer’s been careful and hasn’t left obvious evidence. And some of the murders took place before the use of contemporary DNA testing. Still, the squad persists, and, in the end, it turns out to be DNA that links Melissa and her killer – and connects the other murders, too.

Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw has an interesting use of DNA evidence. Wealthy Japanese magnate Takaoki Ninagawa is devastated when his granddaughter, Chika, goes missing. Her body is later discovered, and it’s established that she was raped before being murdered. Now, Ninagawa is determined to do something about it. DNA evidence has identified the killer as thirty-four-year-old Kunihide Kiyomaru. So, Ninagawa offers a one-billion yet reward to anyone who kills Kiyomaru and can prove it. He then arranges for a very public announcement and website that explain the matter and outline how a person can claim the reward. When Kiyomaru hears of the reward, he comes out of hiding and turns himself in to the police at Fukuoka. His thinking is that he’ll be safer in prison than he would be with hundreds of thousands of potential assassins after him. In order for him to face trial, he’ll have to be returned to Tokyo, a matter of some 1100 km/685 mi. Special Police(SP) officer Kazuki Mekari of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department (MPD) is tapped to escort Kiyomaru, and he’s given a team of people with whom to do the job. But, with so many people interested in the bounty, it’s going to be difficult to keep their prisoner alive. Even the police aren’t immune to the temptation of so much money. The question becomes: will Kiyumaru be brought back alive to Tokyo? And at what cost?

As useful as DNA evidence is, it can sometimes confuse cases, too. For instance, in one plot thread of Michael Connelly’s The Drop, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch is investigating a decades-old case: the rape and murder of nineteen-year-old Lily Price. The DNA evidence linked Clayton Pell, now twenty-nine and in prison for other sexual crimes, to this crime. The strange thing is, he was eight years old at the time of the murder. So, at least on the surface, either Pell was an unusual child, or something went very wrong at the Regional Crime Lab that processed the DNA evidence. Among other things, the novel shows how DNA evidence can complicate an investigation.

Now that DNA analysis is more common than it was, most people know at least a little about it. Even people with no background at all in medicine or other science are aware of it. We see that, for instance, in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, the second of his novels to feature Delhi-based PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. In one plot thread of the story, Puri’s mother, Mummy-ji, attends a kitty party with Puri’s wife, Rumpi. Everyone at a kitty party contributes a certain amount of money to the kitty. Then, one person’s name is drawn, and that person wins all the money. This particular party, though, is interrupted when someone breaks in and steals the money. Mummy-ji scratches the thief, and later goes with Rumpi to the local forensics laboratory, demanding that her nails be tested to get the thief’s DNA. Here’s what the lab attendant (the son of one of her oldest friends) says:
 

‘‘Auntie-ji, I think you’ve been watching too much of CSI on Star TV, isn’t it?”
 

But Mummy-ji isn’t dismissed so easily as that…

DNA testing is also, of course, used to determine biological relationships. And that, too, can play a role in crime novels. For example, in Peter May’s The Blackhouse, Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod returns to his home on the Isle of Lewis to help in a murder investigation. Angel Macritchie has been killed, and his murder looks very similar to an Edinburgh case that Macleod is investigating. The hope is that, if it’s the same killer, pooling resources will help catch that person more quickly. This isn’t a happy homecoming for Macleod, though, as he had his own good reasons for leaving in the first place. But, he does his job the best he can, and in the end, finds out the truth about Macritchie’s death. The Isle of Lewis is a small community, the kind where everyone knows everyone. And everyone knows (or knows of) Fin Macleod. So, as the searches for answers, he also has to face his own past, which is connected with those of several other people on the island. And I can say without spoiling the story that sorting out some of those connections involves a DNA test.

People speak almost casually now of DNA testing and analysis. But it’s really only been a straightforward part of criminal investigation for a few decades. And it’s had some profound effects on evidence gathering, criminal procedures, court cases, and a lot more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Prism’s Just Like Me.

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Filed under Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Lynda La Plante, Michael Connelly, Peter May, Tarquin Hall

I’m Not the Same Person*

Most of us grow and change over time. That’s usually a positive thing, since it means we’re getting more mature. That process of changing and evolving can be a challenge, though, especially when others insist on thinking of us in the ‘same old ways.’ If you’ve ever returned to your home town, for instance, where people knew you as you used to be, you may know that feeling of frustration (e.g. ‘I’m not that person now! I’ve changed!).

In fiction, including crime fiction, changes in characters can certainly add to the story. And it can make for suspense, even conflict, when others don’t seem to want to accept those changes. There are plenty of examples in the genre. Here are just a few.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, we are introduced to Hilton Cubitt. He’s concerned about his wife, Elsie. Before they married, Elsie warned him that she’d had some ‘unpleasant associations’ in her life, although she herself hasn’t done anything wrong. Because of this, she made her husband promise that he wouldn’t ask about her past, and he agreed. But now, it seems the past has caught up with her. She’s been getting cryptic letters written in code. They’re clearly upsetting to her, but she won’t confide in Hilton. So, he brings the case to Sherlock Holmes, who agrees to look into it. Then, messages are scrawled on one of the window sills of the Cubitt house. Now, Elsie seems terrified, but still won’t tell her husband why. Then a tragedy occurs, and Hilton is shot. Holmes works out the code, and discovers that someone has refused to let Elsie change, grow, and, if you will, reinvent herself.

Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger features brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton. Originally from London, they’ve taken a home in the village of Lymstock, so that Jerry can recover from a plane crash injury. They’re just settling in when they receive a vicious anonymous letter that claims they’re lovers, not siblings. Soon enough, they find out that they’re not the only victims of these ‘poison pen’ letters. Someone in town is sending out anonymous letters to several other people. Then, there’s a murder. And another murder. Miss Marple gets involved in the investigation, and discovers the truth behind both the letters and the murders. One of the villagers is 20-year-old Megan Hunter. When we first meet her, she’s awkward and frumpy, and most people dismiss her. Jerry gets to know her, though, and finds himself falling for her. He takes her on a trip to London, where he pays for her to have a makeover and new clothes. When they return, Megan looks and learns to act more sophisticated and mature. But it’s a bit awkward at first, as not everyone is ready to forget the dowdy, clumsy Megan they knew.

In Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point, we meet brothers Leo and Patrick Varela. They grew up in Belize, but moved to Miami. Now, Patrick has a very promising career in local law and politics. He’s even being spoken of as a very good choice for the next mayor of Miami, with all sorts of possibilities after that. Leo is a poet, who also works at Jefferson Memorial, a mental hospital. He doesn’t travel in his brother’s circles, but they do have their past in common. And it comes back to haunt them. One day, Leo gets a visit from Freddy Robinson, whom he knew in Belize. Freddy’s now working for some ‘associates’ who want Leo to release one of the patients, Herman Massani. It seems that Massani has some information on voter fraud in the Miami-Dade County area. If that information is accurate, it implicates Patrick. At first, Leo doesn’t want anything to do with Freddy, who’s become a convicted felon. But Freddy insists, and reminds Leo that he knows about some dark things that happened in the Varela brothers’ past. Leo’s tried his best to move beyond Belize, but now, it seems that Freddy won’t let that happen. When Leo contacts his brother, Patrick wants to wait and see what will happen. But things soon begin to spin out of control for both brothers, and it’s clear that they won’t be easily allowed to get past what happened when they were younger.

In Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, social worker Simran Singh returns to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. She’s been living and working in Delhi, which suits her. But, when an old university friend asks for her help in a case, she finds it impossible to refuse. It seems that a horrible tragedy has occurred at the home of the wealthy Atwals. Thirteen members of the family have been poisoned, and some stabbed. What’s more, someone set fire to the house. The only survivor is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. The evidence isn’t clear on whether she was responsible for what happened, or was a victim who managed to survive. Durga herself has said nearly nothing about that night, so the police don’t know how to proceed with her (or the investigation). It’s hoped that if Simran works with the girl, she can get her to open up and talk about what happened. In one of the sub-plots of the novel, Simran faces the challenge of people who want to see her only as the girl she was, and not as the skilled, educated professional she is now. That proves to be a real stumbling block for her, although she does find out the truth about the Atwal case.

And then there’s Peter May’s Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod, who makes his entrance in The Blackhouse. He’s originally from the Isle of Lewis, but left there several years ago. Now, he’s a police detective, living and working in Edinburgh. Then, there’s a murder on the Isle of Lewis that closely resembles an Edinburgh case MacLeod’s working. He’s seconded to the island, the idea being that if the two murders were committed by the same person, the two police forces should work together. For MacLeod, though, this isn’t a happy homecoming. He had good reasons for leaving in the first place, and had no real desire to go back. He does, though, and meets up again with the people he grew up with, several of whom never left the island. His interactions with them add some interesting tension to the novel. Over the years, he’s grown up, become a skilled detective, and made a new life for himself. But plenty of people on the island still see him as the boy he once was.

And that’s a big challenge when we try to grow up and remake ourselves. We sometimes have to deal with the fact that not everyone sees the ‘new us.’ That can make for real-life tension, and interesting conflict and character development in a novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Bettye Crutch, Allen Jones, and Booker T. Jones.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Vasquez, Kishwar Desai, Peter May

So Much Has Happened, But Nothing Has Changed*

Buildings often have a lot of history to them, especially if they are older buildings. And it’s interesting to see how they change over time, and how our perceptions of them change as we get older. If you’ve ever returned to a home you knew as a child, you know the feeling, I’m sure.

A building with history can add much to a story, including, of course, a crime story. It can add atmosphere, tension, character development, and a lot more. There are a lot of them in the genre; here are just a few. I know you’ll think of more.

Interestingly enough, Agatha Christie uses such buildings in a few of her stories. One is Styles Court, in Styles St. Mary. This old family home makes its debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (incidentally, Hercule Poirot makes his first appearance in the same novel). In the story, Captain Hastings visits an old friend, John Cavendish, who now lives at Styles Court with his wife, Mary, his brother, Lawrence, and his stepmother, Emily Inglethorp. Also living there is Mrs. Inglethorp’s husband, Alfred, her protégée, Cynthia Murdoch, and her good friend, Evelyn ‘Evie’ Howard. When Mrs. Inglethorp is murdered, all of the other residents are suspects. Poirot feels a debt to the victim, since she sponsored him as a refugee. So, he investigates her murder. Years later, Styles Court features again in Curtain, the last Hercule Poirot novel. It’s now a Guest House, and an aged and ailing Hercule Poirot is staying there. He wants Captain Hastings to be his ‘eyes and ears,’ and help him catch a killer known only as X. According to Poirot, X has killed before, and he wants the murderer stopped. Then, there’s a murder at the Guest House, and it looks very much as though X has struck again. It’s a complicated puzzle, and it’s interesting to see the changes to Styles Court between these two novels.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces his sleuths, Arthur Bryant and John May, both of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). As the novel begins, Bryant’s writing his memoirs, including the story of the first PCU case. Then, a bomb blast goes off at the PCU offices, taking Bryant with it. A grieving May wants to find out who is responsible, and decides to go back through that old first case to try to get some answers. He returns to the scene, London’s Palace Theatre. In that 1940 investigation, Bryant and May looked into some bizarre deaths and a disappearance, all connected with the theatre’s upcoming production of Orpheus. As the modern-day May re-examines the case, we learn that an important part of it was never solved. So, May picks up that piece and searches again for the truth. At the same time, we go back to 1940, and follow along as Bryant and May investigate. Both timelines feature the Palace Theatre. In 1940, it’s a vibrant place with plenty of innovation, new shows, and so on. The building still stands in the modern-day timeline, but of course, it’s much older. It may not have changed dramatically, since it’s not a private residence or a more typical business. But it’s got more ‘ghosts,’ including the people involved in the 1940 case. As May goes back to the past, as you might say, we see how much the Palace has and hasn’t changed.

Peter May’s Lewis trilogy features Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod. As the first novel begins, he’s an Edinburgh police detective who’s investigating a bizarre murder. When another, very similar, murder occurs on the Isle of Lewis, MacLeod is seconded there. The idea is that if these two crimes were committed by the same person, it makes sense to join forces. If not, nothing’s been lost. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on the island. But it’s not a joyful reunion with friends and family. MacLeod has his own past history, and some very good reasons for having left in the first place. As the trilogy goes on, we see several places on the island both as they were years earlier, and as they are now. And, we see how MacLeod’s perspective has changed, now that he’s an adult. It’s an interesting and distinctive use of the setting.

A great deal of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels takes place in a small Welsh village. In one timeline, it’s 1962, and we follow the fortunes of four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. They don’t have much in common, but there aren’t many children in the village, so they spend their share of time together. And that fateful summer, they unearth several dark secrets that some people have been keeping. The other timeline is contemporary. In it, retired police detective Will Sloane returns to the village after several years in Spain. There’s one case he hasn’t solved yet – a missing child – and he wants some resolution before he dies. As Sloane returns to the village and interacts with people, we see how much (and how little) everything has changed. There are some new shops and businesses (and residents), and some old buildings that have fallen into disuse. There are other changes, too. At the same time, the rhythm of the village is much the same. It’s an interesting look at the pace of village life.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford series. These novels are set in the small Devon village of Little Dipperton. The main estate there is Honeychurch Hall, which has been owned by the same family for many, many generations. Today, it’s lived in by Lady Edith Honeychurch, her son, Rupert, his wife, Lavinia, and their son, Harry. The roots of the house and the village are very deep, and they include Stanford’s mother, Iris. In fact, in Murder at Honeychurch Hall, the first in this series, Iris has abruptly left London and taken a small house on the Honeychurch property. Her daughter goes to Little Dipperton to see what’s behind her mother’s sudden decision, and ends up staying. As the series goes on, we see the hall and the village as they are now. But we also see them as they once were, especially during the 1950s, when Iris was there as a teenager and young woman. It’s especially interesting to see how things have (but haven’t, really) changed.

And that’s the thing about those old buildings. They have a lot of history. On the one hand, they change, as everything does. On the other, in many ways, they may not. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glenn Frey’s You Belong to the City.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Christopher Fowler, Hannah Dennison, Peter May

There’ll be One Child Born and a World to Carry On*

One of the many things that parents do is pass on certain traditions to their children. That’s one important way in which culture is perpetuated, if you think about it. Those traditions may be religious, but they certainly don’t have to be. It could be a family tradition of winemaking, or a particular way of cooking, or something else. And it’s interesting to see how many of those traditions people follow when they become adults.

We see that in crime fiction, just as we do in real life. For example, John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, the first of his Dr. Gideon Fell novels, features a family tradition among the Starberths. It seems that several generations of Starberth men served as governors of Chatterham Prison, until the place fell into disuse. The prison itself is in ruins now, but it’s still part of an important Starberth family tradition. Each Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. As proof of his presence, he’s to open the safe in the room, and read and follow the instructions on a piece of paper that’s kept there. Tragically, too, many of those Starberth men have met with untimely ends. There’s even talk the family is cursed. Now, it’s Martin Starberth’s turn. He’s not looking forward to the experience, but he prepares himself to do what he’s supposed to do. On the night of his birthday, though, he dies of an apparent fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. It turns out, though, that Starberth’s death was no accident at all. Fell, who lives nearby, investigates with some help from an American guest, Tad Rampole. They find that this death has very little to do with a family curse. You’re right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual.

Sometimes, a tradition that’s passed on is professional. The child of a police officer or firefighter, etc., follows the same path. And that can lead to a lot of success. But it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, we meet L.A.P.D. officer Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley. He bears the heavy burden of being the son of revered police detective, Preston Exley. And Exley the elder intends that his son will go as far as possible in the department. So, he pushes him to climb the proverbial ladder, and berates him when he doesn’t achieve. For his part, Ed works hard and does everything ‘by the book’ – too much so for plenty of people. And the pressure he feels from his father turns him into a player of politics. That has an important impact when seven civilians are attacked by the police – and, two years later, when there’s a shooting at a nightclub. It’s an interesting look at the way a family professional tradition can impact the next generation.

Some family traditions are religious/spiritual in nature. That’s the case with Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee. He is a member of the Navajo Nation, and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Although he’s certainly familiar with dominant-culture society, Chee prefers to follow the traditions of his own people. In fact, early in the series, he studies to become a yata’ali – a singer/healer. Chee’s maternal uncle, Frank Sam Nakai, is pleased about this. He himself is a singer, and wants to pass along those rituals. And there aren’t as many young people interested in learning them as there were. So, Nakai works with Chee when he can, and teaches him what he needs to know.

We also see the passing on of religious traditions in Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Dekcer series. When we first meet these sleuths, Lazarus lives with her two sons, Jaakov ‘Jake’ and Shmuel ‘Sammy’ in Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, an Orthodox Jewish community near Los Angeles. Her religion is extremely important to her, so she wants to pass it on to her children. It’s a bit difficult, because she is a widow, but Lazarus keeps the house in the kosher style, speaks to her sons in both English and Hebrew, and so on. They study religion and religious history at the community’s school, too. The other members of the community do much the same thing. It’s part of the bond among the people who live there.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse explores a different sort of tradition. In that novel, Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis when a murder occurs there that resembles one he’s already investigating. It’s hoped that, if the same person committed both crimes, it’ll be easier to catch the killer if both teams are working on the case. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he was raised on the Isle of Lewis. But it’s not a joyful prospect, as he had his own reasons for leaving in the first place. As Macleod works through the investigation, we learn about life on the Isle of Lewis. One of the traditions that’s a part of this story is that every year, a group of men travel to An Sgeir, an outcropping of rock fifty miles away. They spend two weeks there, harvesting guga, young gannet that nest on the rock. It’s dangerous and physically very demanding, and not everyone gets to go. In fact, it’s a real mark of distinction to be one of those who do. As new places in the group open up, people ‘sponsor’ sons, nephews, or even grandsons, to join the team. In that way, the tradition of harvesting the guga has been passed along for as long as anyone knows.

And that’s the thing about passing along traditions. People want to preserve parts of their culture, or they want to pass along their profession. So they teach their children, hoping that they will preserve what they’ve learned.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Laura Nyro’s And When I Die. Listen to her version,  Peter, Paul and Mary’s version, and the recording by Blood, Sweat & Tears, and see which one you prefer.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Faye Kellerman, James Ellroy, John Dickson Carr, Peter May, Tony Hillerman